A decided benefit of working at a university is the opportunity to attend cultural events and lectures by provocative and often moving personalities. I've had two such opportunities in the past 10-days. On Tuesday of last week I heard death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean speak, and just last evening I attended a performance of the controversial play My Name is Rachel Corrie.
I don't know what I expected when I went to see Sister Helen. What did you go out to see? A celebrity surrounded by reporters and screaming fans? No, those who are surrounded by reporters and screaming fans are on Entertainment Tonight. Or something like that. I saw a not too tall, sturdy, gray-haired woman, soberly dressed in a business suit. She was standing in front of a table where her two books, Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents were for sale. I walked right by the evening's guest speaker, not realizing that she was the one conversing naturally yet earnestly with some students. True, there was a tall young woman standing nearby, apparently Sister Helen's manager or handler or something, shaking her head and remarking to another attendee how hard it was to keep her client on schedule....
Sister was introduced by a former prisoner, a man who had served 20 years --12 of them in solitary confinement-- for a murder he never committed. Finally exonerated, he emerged broken by his long years of incarceration and began touring with Sister Helen as a way to help his spirit heal. In his introduction he talked about how, since the death penalty was given the go-ahead by the Supreme Court in 1977, the condemned had no one to be their voice...until Sister Helen. Then she took the floor.
I was captivated by the rich musicality, the lilting Louisiana cadence of that voice. Sister Helen told of how she grew up as child of white privilege, the daughter of a well-to-do attorney. She became a nun and dedicated herself to the service of the poor, although she did not know any poor people personally and was unlikely ever to meet any in the suburbs. Then, as she put it, one day she woke up. She took the commands of Jesus seriously. Moving to a neighborhood where needy people lived, she began to care for them. One day, an acquaintance walked up to her carrying a clipboard and casually asked if she would like to correspond with a death row inmate. "Sure," she said, never dreaming how that first letter would change her whole life's focus. "God can be pretty sneaky," she remarked.
As a member of a local Amnesty International group, I regularly sign petitions on behalf of prisoners in the U.S. and elsewhere who are facing execution, and I've become acquainted with abolitionists here and abroad. However, Sister Helen's twofold ministry puts her in a category all her own. Stretching out her arms, she illustrated that capital punishment is like the cross, with the families of the murdered on one side and the prisoners condemned to death on the other. She made the difficult spiritual journey through what she frankly called cowardice toward the deep conviction that she could not be faithful to her ministry if she limited it to caring for the prisoners while neglecting to reach out to the families of their victims. She told the heart-rending story of her first encounter with the father of a murder victim. "You have no idea," he told Sister Helen, "what pressure we are under to demand the death sentence. But I'm a kind person..." He did not want to compound the killing of his son by killing the love inside of himself.
"The art of love, " Sister Helen concluded, "is self-preservation...it is not letting the love in us die."
Sister spoke for a little over an hour, talking about her work and urging us to take it up also. What will always stay with me are the words of blessed assurance that Sister Helen spoke to that first prisoner who could not believe that God would ever forgive him: "I told him that he was worth more than the worst thing he did in his life.... We are all worth more than the worst act of our life."